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Influencing Politics Through a Religious Lens

April 19, 2017

Portrait of Jack Delehanty

Portrait of Jack Delehanty
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency

Sociology graduate student Jack Delehanty was raised in a Christian, church-going family. "There was a lot of talk at church about helping the poor, but no discussion of changing the political and economic systems that cause and sustain poverty," Delehanty says. His own experiences, in part, led him to focus his dissertation research on documenting how faith-based social justice groups develop moral frameworks for thinking about racial and socioeconomic inequality.

Delehanty uses participant observation and in-depth interviews to identify the issues of morality that are important to those who are politically left-leaning in order to explain how they connect religious faith with political action that works across racial and denominational lines. "At its core, morality is about creating a society that gives as many people as possible the resources they need to live well," Delehanty says. "But it's harder for the left to do this than it is for white evangelicals because there's not a common racial and cultural identity to facilitate unity. White evangelical Christians can look backward to a time in history that they believe was better: more oriented toward the family, more rooted in traditional values, and less complicated. The multiracial composition of progressive religious movements means that they do not share a common historical reference the way white evangelicals do, and this means they don't have the same kind of obvious cultural narrative to rally around." As a result, progressive religious organizations must actively create a sense of unity. Delehanty's research explains what this unity is as well as how it's constructed and endowed with moral meaning.

Religion and Politics in American History

Without the help of his dissertation advisor Penny Edgell, Delehanty wouldn't have the same depth of background knowledge of this issue. Delehanty explains, "My advisor has helped me to understand how the culture of political activism that I am seeing in churches today is linked to larger historical developments in the relationship between religion and politics over the course of American history," he says.

"Starting in the early 20th century, religion's influence on public life began to be questioned as science and other modern forms of knowledge started to provide alternative ways of thinking about the world," he explains. "Some denominations responded by doubling down on biblical authority and the exclusive nature of religion as a source of truth. These are the people we would recognize as evangelical Christians today. Other Christians responded by trying to find ways to integrate their religious beliefs with the emerging, more secular social order. These became the mainline Protestants of today."

"As Evangelical Christianity became associated with conservative politics and the Republican Party, other Christian denominations needed to find new ways to organize to advance their beliefs in public. Today's progressive religious activism, which occurs largely outside of formal denominational structures and is organized in large part by laypeople in addition to clergy, is a product of that history."

Identifying the Scope of Social Justice

Using this background to help inform his research, Delehanty is conducting a careful examination of a group he calls Faith Action, a coalition of churches working to unite those who want to create justice."Part of what [Faith Action] is trying to do is to expand people's visions of what social justice means, and what issues fall within the scope of social justice," Delehanty says.

"For instance, one organizer talks about how he has long cared about the environment, but never saw environmentalism as a social justice issue until he read Naomi Klein's book on capitalism and climate change. Now, he sees fighting climate change as an issue of socioeconomic and racial equity, and is trying to organize churches to lobby for 100 percent renewable energy. I am documenting these types of efforts to create a new, interfaith social justice identity that brings people together and gives them common cause to work together."

Empowering Communities

Delehanty has also observed that one of Faith Action's goals is to empower communities who have traditionally had a hard time influencing politics. "The City Council will be up for election this fall. Typically, voter turnout in city council elections is low, especially among poor communities. This means that poor communities are often not well represented on the council. In order to help them achieve better representation, this organization is training leaders of color to hold public meetings with city council candidates," Delehanty explains.

"This empowers the community in two ways: first, leaders who organize public meetings learn how to talk with elected officials and ask them to pursue policies that will help the community. Second, people who attend these meetings demonstrate to the council that they are a powerful political constituency with needs that are going unaddressed, and that they have the power to elect candidates who will do a better job of serving their interests."

Delehanty has found that there is a general misconception that aligning political action through religious beliefs is easy. Delehanty aims to "shed light on the ways that group interactions bond religious beliefs to political action" in order to overcome this misconception. He further explains, "Faith Action is extremely good at getting people to expand their self interest. The overarching problem that connects all of these issues is that the current political and economic system does not do a good job of representing the interests of middle to lower class people, no matter their race or ethnicity, whether they live in the city or in rural areas, whether they are religious or not." Delehanty hopes his research will influence and connect those with similar problems.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.